As a consultant and trainer on the topic of arts marketing, so often when I’m contacted by potential clients there is an assumption that all I’m concerned with is promotional planning. And even when reading about the topic of arts marketing or having discussions with otherwise enlightened arts leaders, we seem to often forget a basic tenet of marketing – Product is the first of the Marketing Ps. (For more information on the Marketing Ps visit www.artsmarketing.org).
Having worked in the arts management field for over 15 years, I know all too well why this happens. Product is the realm of the artists, marketing is the realm of the managers – or so the conventional thinking goes. The problem with this thinking is that it limits the organization’s ability to truly think strategically. The product is the core of the customer experience, which also means it is not limited to what they see on the stage or on the walls of the gallery.
So what does it mean to really consider Product as the first marketing P? One fantastic example I can point to comes from a small contemporary ballet company (who will remain nameless because they are still at the beginning of their planning process around this new idea). After two years of working with them to build local audiences for their performances, they came to me with an interesting marketing challenge. This current season has reached over 95% capacity – they have essentially sold out the entire season (*Note – their seasons run on a calendar year). As many small performing companies realize, simply adding performances is not the best financial approach to growing the company, the ROI just isn’t there. So their question was – where do we spend our marketing dollars to grow the company now that we are selling out? A good problem to have, no doubt you are thinking. And it is, though it can present a broad range of new challenges. The big challenge for this particular dance company is how to extend a brand that is very place-based (particular to their hometown and home venues) beyond their home base. This is not a challenge that can be met by only re-thinking where to advertise or how to use social media. Also, this need to extend the brand is incredibly important to them because it impacts the quality of dancers they attract, the quality of choregraphers and other companies that want to partner with them, and the ability to build support beyond a limited local philanthropic base. Ultimately – it affects the Product.
So where did our planning take us? Working together with the Executive Director and Artistic Director – who happen to be one of the most collaborative management teams I’ve ever witnessed – we completely restructured their season planning, connecting an existing choreographer’s competition to an expanded creative residency and performance festival to the new idea of reciprocal presentation opportunities in the hometowns of visiting artists. This new approach will take a few years before it is fully realized, but it gives them a clear way of communicating with supporters and partners “what is next” for the company and why to be excited. While I realize, because this idea is in its infancy and lacks specifics, you may be wondering how this example is useful to you. The moral of this story is that true strategic marketing planning needs to allow for re-envisioning of the product, which may mean opening up artistic planning approaches and schedules for change.
While there are many new tools available to build relationships with customers and more and more ways to communicate, we musn’t limit our marketing thinking to this realm. If we do, we’ll miss tremendous opportunities to truly improve the sustainability of our organizations and improve the product and customer experience.